'It's Been Too Long': Yankees Feed Off Return of Fans in Spring Training Opener

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TAMPA — As the Yankees' starting nine emerged from the first-base dugout in unison, jogging onto the field for New York's spring training opener on Sunday, the team was serenaded with a chorus of cheers. 

The Yankees may have lost their first exhibition game of 2021—falling 6-4 to the Toronto Blue Jays at George M. Steinbrenner Field—but having fans back in the ballpark for the first time since last spring was welcomed across the board.

"How nice is it having people in the stands?" Yankees manager Aaron Boone asked on a Zoom call after the game. "I saw a highlight before we walked out of a kid chasing a ball going over the fence in batting practice. To have some interaction with the fans, waving, it's been too long."

At the start, there wasn't much to cheer about for the fans in attendance. Right-hander Michael King struggled in his two innings of work, allowing three runs, three hits and two walks while hitting two batters. Plus, the Yankees didn't have their first base hit until DJ LeMahieu led off the fourth inning with a single to center field.

Nonetheless, those in pinstripes said there was a constant buzz all afternoon. This one felt different for them because of the atmosphere.

"One of my favorite things is just interactions in between innings when you first run out there," Aaron Judge said. "The crowd, the energy, the roar, hearing them yelling certain things, good things, bad things. You feed off of that."

It was so exciting that Gleyber Torres said Sunday felt like the first day of school.

"I feel really excited to see fans in the stands," the shortstop said. "We feel more motivation to play. We feel happy to see little boys in the stands, fans getting loud pitch after pitch and inning after inning."

Those roars heightened in the fourth when reserve catcher Rob Brantly and outfielder Mike Tauchman crushed back-to-back home runs to bring the Yankees back into the game. Much to the chagrin of the 2,637 fans in attendance, New York's comeback ended up falling short.

Fans were allowed at George M. Steinbrenner Field in a limited capacity, separated around the stands to ensure social distancing. King mentioned that he wasn't used to the movement of figures in the seats after pitching with cardboard cutouts around him at ballparks last summer.

"It's awesome to have fans even just getting into a 3-2 count," King explained. "You've got the slow clap going and everything. It was just totally different. A little unexpected because I haven't pitched in that [environment] in a long time. It was a lot more fun than it has been."

Even if Yankees fans were back at the ballpark, there were still protocols the Bombers had to follow. Aaron Judge will often play catch with fans in the right-field seats between innings, throwing a baseball back and forth. He recalled a moment when he remembered he had to hold off from that interaction in an effort to stay safe.

Even without signing autographs or having close conversations, Judge said he's still going to give the fans a chance to connect with him. It'll just have to be in the "old-fashioned way."

"In the past, I could play catch with them, I could get up around the wall and talk with them, ask them questions and sign autographs," Judge said. "I'll just let my play be the connection. Put on a show."

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